Thursday, December 31, 2015

December Site Update

The final 10 reviews of 2015 have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1 (Paul Jenkins)

Fairy Quest: Outcasts #1
(The Fairy Quest series, Outcasts Issue 1)
Paul Jenkins, illustrated by Humberto Ramos
Boom! Studios
Fiction, YA Comics, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the world of Fablewood, all stories live side by side, re-enacting their roles faithfully under the eye of Mister Grimm and his Think Police. Deviants are captured, their minds erased, lest the ordered tales fall into chaos and anarchy. Young Red and Mister Woof only want to be friends, but their story dictates otherwise. They flee into the Dark Woods, pursuing the faint hope of the Mapmaker beneath the mountains, in hopes of finding a new world where they can live and think as they please... but this is one fairy tale that Grimm doesn't mean to end happily ever after.

REVIEW: Starting quickly, with Red and "Mister Woof" (the Big Bad Wolf) already in flight through a fairy tale world that's dying under Grimm's harsh rule, Fairy Quests maintains a good pace throughout. Red can be a bit naive, almost irritatingly so, but such is how she was written, and even as she clings to free will, old habits remain. Woof gets the best lines and the best expressions, though sometimes his more direct method of dealing with problems isn't the best. Meanwhile, Grimm is established as a truly formidable opponent; if he sees how his tight grip on Fablewood is squeezing the life from the stories, he doesn't care, so long as order is maintained. It has touches of whimsy, but with a dark and devious subtext, enhanced by the artwork. I expect I'll read onward for at least another issue or two, to see where Jenkins is going with this intriguing setup.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Sisters Grimm: Fairy Tale Detectives (Michael Buckley) - My Review
Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines) - My Review

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Bad Spell in Yurt (C. Dale Brittain)

A Bad Spell in Yurt
(The Royal Wizard of Yurt series, Book 1)
C. Dale Brittain
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Newly-graduated wizard Daimbert thought he'd found the perfect job when he accepted the role of Royal Wizard of Yurt. It's an insignificant little kingdom, a perfect match for his meager skills. Cast a few weather spells, work a few illusions, keep the king amused and the populace awed - what more could such a place demand of him? But something's not right in Yurt, an evil presence that lurks at the edge of his perception. Someone's been dabbling in black magic, and whatever they've summoned won't leave without a fight, and likely a soul. This will take high-end wizardry, not to mention cunning and deduction to root out the mage and a keen grasp of demonic negotiations. Too bad Daimbert can't even touch his book on demonology without getting the willies...

REVIEW: It looked like a lightweight, fun little fantasy, with whimsy and a dash of detective work around the edges. Unfortunately, it reads very stale and dated, even for having originally been published in 1991, riddled with tired cliches. Daimbert's highly ineffective as a wizard and a character, spending more time making excuses for his lack of knowledge and ability than actually doing anything about... well, anything, from locating the source of the shapeless evil to detecting the source of the black magic to bringing his own skills up to par for the inevitable confrontation. He even fails to win much respect from Yurt's inhabitants, most of whom see through the facade to the fairly flimsy, barely-passing neophyte behind the robes. Most of his time is spent socializing with Yurt's inhabitants (shallow stereotypes, every one of them), none of whom ever come off as credible suspects, and navigating a tempestuous friendship with Joachim, the castle chaplain. Speaking of the church, this is another pothole that kept my suspension of disbelief from getting airborne: Brittain imports Christianity whole-hog into this otherwise independent fantasy world - making it a source of even greater miracles than wizardry can dream of, to the point where one wonders why people even bother learning magic when the church stands just across the road. Indeed, a good portion of the plot is about the concept of damnation and how one's soul is judged. Even leaving out the question of why inhabitants of an imaginary world would follow a real-world religion, I wanted a fantasy, not a treatise on salvation. I also wanted fun, but the humor's as vapid as the story and characters. The plot unfolds slowly, usually in spite of Daimbert rather than due to anything he actually does to advance it, winding up with a climax that I just plain couldn't care about. The wrap-up is far too long, full of explanatory speeches, and it ends on an odd, ill-struck final note that doesn't quite feel like a conclusion, even the conclusion of Book 1 of a series. A Bad Spell in Yurt is, as I expected, a lightweight tale - but more due to lack of substance than whimsy.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wiz Biz (Rich Cook) - My Review
Off To Be The Wizard (Scott Meyer) - My Review
The Accidental Sorcerer (K. E. Mills) - My Review

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Screaming Staircase (Jonathan Stroud)

The Screaming Staircase
(The Lockwood & Co. series, Book 1)
Jonathan Stroud
Disney Hyperion
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Since the dawn of history, humans have started at darkness, shadows, and things that go bump in the night. Since the Problems woke spirits across England, those things have become all too real - and the touch of a ghost is just as deadly to grown-ups who barely sense their presence as to more sensitive kids. Iron, silver, salt, and lights help keep the wraiths at bay after sundown, but thus far the most effective ghost-fighters have been gifted children. Armed with silver-tipped rapiers, salt bombs, iron filings, chains, and other gadgets, they prowl the nights dispersing specters and, where possible, identifying and neutralizing the Sources, the item (often mortal remains) to which the spirits are bound.
Lucy Carlyle is one such girl. She had a promising career ahead of her, until a disaster led her to be blamed for the deaths of several fellow agents - a disaster caused by the cowardice of their adult supervisor. She came to London hoping to find a new job, but her record holds her back, until she makes it to the door of Lockwood & Co. Anthony Lockwood's an inscrutable boy, prone to mercurial moods, not to mention a certain eccentric streak. For one, he tolerates George, who's tooth-grindingly annoying on his best days. For another, he runs his agency without adult supervision - a serious risk, and one that puts him at odds with DEPRAC, England's official government department for handling the Problems. Lucy might've passed if she'd had other options, but she needs the job, and Lockwood and George need a new partner. Little does she know what adventures lay ahead... particularly the case of the Screaming Staircase, which begins innocuously enough with a standard suburban haunting, but leads to a forgotten murder, a vengeful spirit, and deep into the blood-soaked halls of one of England's most haunted sites.

REVIEW: Stroud creates another interesting twist on modern-day London with his latest series, creating a haunted world where children - traditionally the victims of formless nocturnal fears - are forced onto the front lines of a supernatural battle. In a country with as long and bloody a history as England, there's no shortage of spirits to haunt the night, and for every one dispatched a dozen more are waiting to take their place. It's not a victimless fight, either; agents (and their adult supervisors, often those who have outgrown most of their Talents) frequently die confronting spirits, sometimes to return as wraiths themselves. Even those who survive are haunted by what they see and experience. This adventure acts as a pilot episode, establishing the characters and the world as the story unfolds. As such, at times it seems a bit slow, backtracking through Lucy's history and other things, but even when it's simply laying groundwork it's interesting enough to keep reading. Lucy's Talent for psychometry (picking up residual memories and emotions off haunted objects) draws her deeper into the world of the ghosts than either of her partners, an empathy that threatens her more than once; even a victim of terrible injustice is deadly to the living. George is the comic relief, chubby and food-obsessed and always ready with a smart line, though his research skills and other talents make him a fully competent team member when it counts. As for Lockwood, he's almost annoyingly inscrutable at times, a junior version of Carnacki with touches of Sherlock Holmes around the edges. The three work fairly well together in their investigation, which tangles paths with the living as much as the (un)dead. All in all, it's a fine, spirited adventure, with some truly chilling moments and a decent mystery at its heart. I expect I'll read on if and when I track down Book 2 at a reasonable price.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghost in the Third Row (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder (William Hope Hodgson) - My Review
Glimpse (Steven Whibley) - My Review

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sector 7 (David Wiesner)

Sector 7
David Wiesner
Clarion Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: On a foggy field trip to the Empire State Building, a young artist meets a playful cloud. It carries him to the secret factory high above the world, where clouds are created and dispatched around the globe - but the clouds aren't happy with the plans they've been given. Maybe the boy can help...

REVIEW: This wordless picture book was on top of a bin at work during some down time, so I gave it a try. It's an imaginative adventure, from the hat-stealing cloud to the great floating factory of Sector 7, with interesting illustrations. The story is simple but satisfying.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Quest (Aaron Becker) - My Review
The Cinder-Eyed Cats (Eric Rohmann) - My Review
Mr. Wuffles! (David Wiesner) - My Review

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Almost Perfect (Julie Ortolon)

Almost Perfect
(The Perfect trilogy, Book 1)
Julie Ortolon
Julie Ortolon, publisher
Fiction, Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In college, roommates Maddy, Christine, Amy, and Jane couldn't have been more different... which may be why they were such perfect friends, balancing each others' shortcomings. Though no longer close, Maddy and the others were happy for Jane's successes, first as a TV anchor and then as a motivational speaker... at least, until they read her best-selling self-help book, How to Have a Perfect Life. All three friends are used (if not named) as sterling examples of what happens when a body lets fear sabotage their life and happiness. As upset as they are, though, they admit Jane has a point. They make a pact on the spot: within the next year, each will face their own greatest fears.
Maddy grew up watching her hard-working mother sacrifice her happiness for the sake of a brutish man. She swore she'd never be that woman, even to the point of rejecting her high-school sweetheart, bad boy Joe Fraser, in order to pursue a career in art. Now she's in her thirties and a widow after cancer took her husband... and she still hasn't done a thing with her art degree or her talent, dabbling on the side and even getting a job in an art gallery without ever trying to submit her own work for display. When she makes that pact, she has an offer to teach arts and crafts at a summer camp in Santa Fe - one of the world's premiere art cities - which would put her in the right place to face her own fear of success: her personal oath to her friends is to get her work into one art gallery. But the job isn't without a few drawbacks. For one, the camp owner is Mama Fraser, foster mother of Joe. For another, Joe himself will be on site, his career as an Army Ranger ended by a bullet to the knee. True, she shattered his heart the day she rejected his proposal, but they were just kids then, barely out of high school. Both Maddy and Joe have had over a decade to mature and change; odds are, that old torch burned out long ago. Or has it?

REVIEW: With a bit of a rough start, as Ortolon establishes the set-up and the characters (all of whom initially look like standard romance fare), I didn't figure I'd be particularly drawn in, but somehow I ended up reading this whole thing in a day. While Maddy continues to wrestle with fear of success, coupled with a certainty that somehow she's responsible for others losing if she wins, Joe must deal with issues of abandonment and love stemming from a childhood spent bouncing from one foster home to another, not to mention a tendency to overcompensate for uncertainty by clinging all the harder to plans. Both stumble frequently as their reunion passes from anger to infatuation to frustration and utter disaster, with miscommunication and assumptions perpetually tripping them up. From the start, there's a physical spark between the two, but even when things cross the line from imagination to reality, the going isn't smooth; indeed, physical intimacy only makes things more complicated, especially when there are still unresolved issues in the closet. Scars from the past never fully heal, but failing to address them, ignoring them and hoping they'll go away, only makes them fester. The story treads close to preaching now and again, particularly towards the end as Maddy and her friends finally dig down to the roots of her fear (the dialog takes on the air of an author lecturing, here), but manages to pull back at the last minute. There are also some genre tropes that I suppose can't be avoided. For instance, women are allowed to be a little plump if they're really gorgeous underneath it, though they must be willing to lose weight (and trade glasses for contacts) if they want to be noticed by guys, while men start and remain Greek gods in the flesh, limited to emotional rather than physical flaws. Otherwise, it proves to be a remarkably balanced relationship that's willing to address the flaws in the characters, not to mention the traditional idea that love alone is all it takes to ensure a happy ending. That, plus its aforementioned power to grab me for a day's reading, land this one solidly in the Good range.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) - My Review

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film (Jean Shepherd)

A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film
Jean Shepherd
Broadway Books
Fiction, Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Little Ralphie's quest to obtain the perfect Christmas gift - a Red Ryder BB gun - in Depression-era Indiana became a holiday classic in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. Before it was a movie, it was a series of humorous essays by Jean Shepherd, a roughly autobiographical account of a Midwestern childhood during the 1930's. This book, drawn from Shepherd's published collections, gathers the stories that were adapted into the movie, including everything from Ralphie's fateful encounter with a bully to the prolonged torment of being neighbors with the Bumpuses... and, of course, the infamous air rifle.

REVIEW: I've seen and enjoyed the movie a few times (though never to the level of worship or day-long marathons), so I thought this sounded interesting, a look at the stories behind the story. To be honest, I think the movie worked better. The essays have a similar sense of humor (which is to be expected, as Shepherd adapted the screenplay), but tend to ramble and dawdle and draw out events unnecessarily... sometimes ending without making a point. The final essay concerning the Bumpuses in particular seems to go on forever, with too little payoff. Granted, they evoke a vision of the place and era through the tinted lens of childhood, with some authentic moments about growing up that resonate across time, but reminiscing with relatives and friends is a whole different animal than doing so with strangers: the former are fine with tales that go nowhere, because it's about reliving the memory, while the latter eventually start wondering where it's all going. While there were some amusing moments here, and it was interesting to see the roots of the movie, all in all I prefer the more compact tale in the film.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Princeless Volume 1 #1 (Jeremy Whitley)

Princeless Volume 1 #1
(The Princeless series)
Jeremy Whitley, illustrations by M. Goodwin
Action Lab Entertainment
Fiction, Comics/Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In a fairy-tale land, Princess Adrienne finds herself locked in a tower guarded by a dragon, just like her sisters. It's a tradition, after all, ensuring that only the worthiest, bravest suitors claim a royal bride. But Adrienne isn't the sort of princess to wait for rescue...
This issue includes the short tale "Mr. Froggy," about the life of a reluctant princeling.

REVIEW: With shades of Shrek and Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, this clever comic send-up of fairy tale tropes is hilarious from start to finish. Adrienne's an outspoken, pro-active heroine, a dark-skinned counterpoint to the "fair maiden" stereotype. The story arc gets off to a good start, with shades of trouble on the horizon for the idealistic princess. The short story adds a male perspective, showing that the boys don't have it much easier than the girls when it comes to family expectations in a fairy tale world. I see that there's at least one compilation volume available; I'll have to track it down one of these days. (I read this issue via the library and Hoopla, a digital lending service.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Paper Bag Princess (Robert N. Munsch) - My Review
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Patricia Wrede) - My Review

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Day the Crayons Came Home (Drew Daywalt)

The Day the Crayons Came Home
(Sequel to The Day The Crayons Quit)
Drew Daywalt, illustrations by Oliver Jeffers
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: One day, Duncan finds a stack of postcards in his room, sent by lost and lonely crayons around the house and beyond.

REVIEW: An excellent follow-up to Daywalt's chuckle-inducing The Day the Crayons Quit, this book features (mostly) new colors in new difficulties, with some nods to the previous book. Pea Green, tired of being hated (both as a vegetable and the color associated with said vegetable), changes his name to Esteban the Magnificent and sets out to see the world, while Neon Red, abandoned months ago on vacation, sends postcards from its walk home. Other crayons plead for help from the yard, the sofa, the laundry hamper, and even the basement, in a special glow-in-the-dark segment. Even his siblings' art supplies get in on the act, as his toddler brother's purple crayon begs for sanctuary while debating the tyke's dubious artistic skills. The art maintains the child-scribble aesthetic of the first one, with the addition of vintage postcards, all of which have extra touches that invite rereads to catch them all (and which adults may snicker at more than children.) It's funny for grown-ups and kids alike... plus, as mentioned, there's a glow-in-the-dark spread, and that never hurts a book rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Journey (Aaron Becker) - My Review
The Day the Crayons Quit (Drew Daywalt) - My Review
Do Not Open This Book! (Michaela Muntean) - My Review

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Unexpected Gifts (Elena Aitken)

Unexpected Gifts
(The Castle Mountain Lodge series, Book 1)
Elena Aitken
Ink Blot Communications
Fiction, Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A year and a lifetime ago, Andi thought she'd be celebrating this Christmas with Blaine and their new child... but a stillborn baby and a bitter break-up destroyed her heart. Worse, her event-planning business, Party Hearty, won't let her simply ignore the season of love, joy, and family - three things she's sure she'll never have again. Her friend and business partner, Eva, tells her she needs to get back out there, even for one good fling, but Andi doesn't do flings. Not even when a last-minute holiday trip to a mountain resort results in unexpectedly sharing a villa with an irresistible single man...
After five years in the Caribbean expanding his home security business, Colin's looking forward to a Canadian Christmas again, with snow on the ground and the scent of pine trees and bonfires. His assistant has booked him a villa at the perfect resort in the Rockies. When Castle Mountain Lodge is overbooked, however, he offers one of his villa's extra bedrooms to a woman in distress - a woman he met once a year or so ago, on the arm of his former best friend Blaine. Though Colin tells himself he doesn't do relationships, not after his own happily-ever-after cheated on him, something about Andi's tempting him to change his mind. But he can't hook up with Blaine's ex, can he?
This title includes the companion short story Unexpected Endings.

REVIEW: I was in the mood for a light story, so this seasonally-appropriate romance caught my eye. It reads quickly, putting the usual genre tropes through their paces in a love story set against the backdrop of a picture-postcard Canadian mountain Christmas. For two characters convinced they can't or won't find True Love, they fall for one another remarkably fast. There's also a subtext about children being the true test, possibly even true purpose, of any love. I understand that losing a baby is highly traumatic, but something about the way children kept popping up over and over again in the story made it less a backdrop and more a bludgeon, until it seems that the fact that she's childless is a greater trauma than the death itself. (Andi even converts the lodge's holiday ball into an all-ages affair... which I'm sure made all the families happy, but I expect it alienated any singles or couples who were looking forward to a nice holiday dance without squealing rugrats on sugar highs running underfoot. But, then, the whole story is rather PG as romances go, with little beyond kisses and brief partial nudity.) Andi and Colin both tend to jump to worst-case-scenario conclusions every other scene (with the intervening scenes lauding how hard they're falling for each other), which began to feel less like gun-shy people learning to trust and more like an author yanking strings. For that matter, the major crisis at the end feels very forced; no spoilers, but did Aitken have to go that far out of the way to dredge up a major obstacle for the would-be lovers to overcome? As for the short story, it simply rehashes and magnifies Andi's insecurities.
On the one hand, it read fast, and had a rather sweet, if light, Christmas flair. On the other, I found it hard to believe the situations and emotions, especially towards the end. Overall, it's a quick holiday treat if that's all you expect from it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Wedding Trap (Adrienne Bell) - My Review
Bound to the Bachelor (Sarah Mayberry) - My Review
Evidence of Trust (Stacey Joy Netzel) - My Review

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sharcano (Jose Prendes)

(The Sharkpocalypse trilogy, Book 1)
Jose Prendes
Curiosity Quills
Fiction, Action/Humor/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the body of a modern-day Megalodon, the monster shark of the dinosaur age, washes up on the shores of Nicaragua, it quickly becomes worldwide news. Little does anyone realize that the shark isn't the real story. All over the world, earthquakes rumble and volcanoes wake, as ocean temperatures rise... though not hot enough to explain the massive fish die-offs, in which sea animals appear to have literally been cooked alive. Popular TV journalist Mick Cathcart, sexy single scientist Dr. Agnes Brach, and numerous other people around the world soon realize that what's happening isn't simply tectonic activity or global warming. It's something far less natural and more sinister, and it may well be the end of the world.

REVIEW: In the vein of Sharknado and other B-movie flicks, this straight-faced monster/disaster film homage doesn't even try for believability or logic or anything remotely cerebral. It just jumps into its ridiculous concept - involving sharks made of living lava - and wallows in it gleefully. The characters come straight out of the genre stock bin: Mick Cathcart's an oversexed alpha male whose family (including a frustrated ex-wife and his humanizing daughter Annie) is falling apart, Agnes is the dedicated scientist whose neglected feminine side responds to Mick's potent combination of masculine presence and vulnerability, Agnes's boss is a cold-hearted tycoon with a tragic past, and so forth. Numerous side characters fill out the story, including the obligatory good-hearted President, a priest who sees signs of diabolical influence behind the disasters, and a pair of backwoods good-ol'-boys who eat way too much page time with their redneck, lowbrow antics. The story is full of action, though it doesn't always move the plot forward, and the writing tends to be clunky and crude (literally, enough that the swear words felt like crutches rather than a deliberate style choice), with overused pet phrases and descriptions, not to mention a few winks to other monster and disaster stories. All in all, I give it credit for delivering just what it promised: a B-movie in a book. I just found the style a little too crude, not to mention the overall plot a little too long and full of side-trips, to justify a Good rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Field Guide to the Apocalypse (Meghann Marco) - My Review
How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters (Mark Shaffer) - My Review - Amazon DVD link

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

November Update

Yes, I know it's a day late... it's a busy time of year, so the tail end of November got away from me.

Anyway, the previous seven reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.